Dust heaps

The site of the future GNR terminus, immediately north of the New Road and west of Maiden Lane, was occupied by a dust heap and streets of small terraced houses as well as the Smallpox and Fever Hospitals.

View of the Great Dustheap, King’s Cross, Battle Bridge, 1837, from the Maiden Lane, E. H. Dixon

Another painting by E. H. Dixon dated 1840 shows the same scene in winter. The annotation refers to Mr Starkey as the owner of the Great Dustheap. 

Note the tower of the Smallpox Hospital on the extreme right (courtesy of Wellcome Collection).

At this time the parish employed private contractors to remove dust. Householders were forever lodging complaints against the dustmen, who were seldom to be found when needed, and had their own way of letting it be known that their services were not free. The dry dust would get into their throats causing an abnormal thirst that could only be allayed by copious quantities of beer, or by a few pence to purchase the needed antidote. This sort of blackmail was not unfamiliar even quite recently.

Somers Town became a dense shanty town, surrounded on several sides by brickfields and dust heaps.

Dustheaps, Somers Town, 1836 

The large building with the domed tower is the Smallpox Hospital. 

Tile kilns are seen in the right distance, from the general area around Battle Bridge (courtesy of Wellcome Collection)

Dust yards were often located near to a river or canal, chosen because a large quantity of dust and ashes was taken by sailing barges to Faversham, Sittingbourne and other places in Kent where there were large brick-making fields.

The largest heap of ‘soil’, or the finer portion of the dust, was placed near the centre of the dust yard. Around it several smaller heaps would be waiting to be sifted.

In the first half of the 19C, dust had a high value; it yielded

       fine dust used in making bricks;

       fine dust as soil conditioner, rendering marshy soil fit for cultivation;

       coarse dust or “breeze” used in burning bricks;

       bones, used for making buttons and other articles;

       fragments of tin and other metals used to reinforce the corners of trunks;

       old boots and shoes for London bootmakers to use as stuffing;

       rags and paper to be recycled for paper; and

       ‘core’ broken crockery, bricks, oyster shells, broken bottles for road foundation.

Maiden Lane had for long been associated with brick fields and tile kilns, and these would have been associated with the dust or midden heaps from which Maiden Lane derived its name.

While dustmen and cinder-sifters were widely considered the pariahs of the metropolis, Dickens in Our Mutual Friend described the female labourers at Mr Dodds’ dustyard, 11/4 miles up Maiden Lane, as

         ‘fat, rosy and laughing, and among the healthiest of our working population’.